With some movies, you can make a pretty accurate guess as to what you’re going to get. With Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, you know straight away: title aside, famed gothic comic-book artist Troy Nixey is at the helm while Guillermo del Toro is both co-writing and producing. The only surprise here is that this promising-looking mix of scares, shocks and weird artistry is only sporadically effective.
It’s the tale of architect Alex (Guy Pearce) and interior designer Kim (Katie Holmes), an arty New York couple whose ambitious restoration of a sprawling Gothic mansion is disturbed by the arrival of Alex’s young daughter Sally (Bailee Madison), handed over to Alex by his neurotic and notably absent ex-wife. Feeling lonely and rejected by her mother, Sally starts exploring the creepy, cobweb-drenched basement which, as she discovers, has been colonised by a gang of evil fairies.
Based on a 1973 teleplay, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark boasts slick design values that perhaps belie its made-for-TV origins. The house is both beautiful and convincingly alienating, drawing obvious comparisons with cinema’s original horror-movie-mansion in The Haunting. The artwork that runs throughout the film is (as one might expect from an artist-turned-director) quite beautiful: from the alluring title sequence to the darkly compelling drawings Kim discovers, created by the house’s original owner. And yet, it’s not quite what it ought to be.
Part of the problem is that, for the first two-thirds, it’s Sally leading us through the story; as a result, this sometimes feels rather like a kid’s adventure movie. In particular, her attempt to befriend the fairies may make viewers wonder if they’ve stumbled into the latest Disney movie.
The fractured family element is also unsatisfactory; we learn just enough about Sally’s mother to be intrigued (she’s unnecessarily put her daughter on to Adderall, she’s instilled her with unreasonable food habits) but we never find out why she and Alex divorced, why she sent Sally away or even what their relationship was like. The tension between Kim and Sally also fails to ever really come to life, partly down to Holmes’ lacklustre performance as the reluctant stepmother. It’s not until Kim takes a leading role in uncovering the house’s mysterious goings-on that Holmes, and indeed the film itself, really get into their stride. There are, unfortunately, one or two unintended sniggers to be had as the horror gets more exaggerated – and the appearance of Alan Dale, as an architectural bigwig, doesn’t help. (You just look at him and want to laugh.)
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a good enough way to pass 90 minutes, but what lets this down as a really great horror movie is, ultimately, its silliness – which is a shame, because that’s a quality which often works well in the genre. But sadly, this lacks the crucial knowingness of its scary-but-delicious superiors – rendering it an okay film, but one that should have been much better.